social security number was stolenIt’s the stuff of nightmares: your credit card was declined at your favorite restaurant or store for no apparent reason, creditors are calling to collect unpaid bills you’re unaware of or the IRS notifies you that someone has filed a tax return in your name before you. If you run into any or all of these situations, it’s understandable if you find yourself suddenly biting your fingernails and wondering if your social security number was stolen.

Since the government uses your social security number to keep track of your lifetime earnings, this number is used when you open accounts at financial institutions, file your tax return and so much more. So, when you suddenly find yourself running into situations where your personal finances or taxes are impacted, it’s reasonable to wonder if your social security number was compromised – especially when incidents like the 2017 Equifax breach resulted in the exposure of social security numbers and other personal information belonging to millions of people. Because Equifax is one of three major credit reporting agencies in the U.S., anyone with a credit history — spoiler: you probably have one if you’ve ever opened a credit card or utilities account — probably has their social security number out on the dark web for anyone to grab.

Given the headaches and tribulations that could come with someone stealing your social security number to commit identity theft, we’ve compiled a list of steps you can take to mitigate the consequences and better prevent more unwanted happenings. Keep reading to see what you can do to secure your personal finances, taxes and more.

What should you do if your social security number is stolen?

If you discover that you’re the unwitting victim of an identity thief who’s making use of your social security number for misdeeds, here are some actions you’ll want to undertake and entities you’ll want to report it to, depending on your specific situation.

Keep records of your files

This isn’t an action you need to take, but it’s essential to note. When you’re trying to mitigate the consequences of your social security number getting misused, the Office of the Inspector General (Social Security Administration) recommends that you keep records of your correspondence and telephone calls, in addition to “other documents verifying your efforts to correct the problem,” as you recover from the misuse. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) underlines this by mentioning that you’ll want to record the dates of the correspondence and calls. By having a strong record of what happened, who you called on what date and what was discussed, you can reference it at any time, if needed.

Contact the FTC and other government agencies

If your social security number was stolen, one of the first actions that should be on your list is to report the incident to the FTC via the identitytheft.gov website, which was created for identity theft victims. Other government agencies that you should consider reporting the incident to include your local police department and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that collects reports of cybercrime activities. Having a police report on hand can go a long way in helping you to prove your identity theft claims are legitimate when disputing credit reporting errors and fraudulent charges.

Contact the three major credit bureaus

Next, you’ll want to contact the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), the credit reporting agencies that put together your credit reports. Before contacting the bureaus, consider obtaining a copy of each credit report, so you know exactly what accounts are fraudulent. All U.S. citizens are entitled to one free copy of each credit report every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. If you’ve already received your free credit reports prior to the identity theft, you can request duplicate copies for free by proving you’re a victim of identity theft (something you’ll do when you contact the bureaus). Alternatively, you can opt to sign up for a credit monitoring service, as the top-rated services provide free credit reports and scores upon signup.

When you contact the credit bureaus, you’ll want to dispute the fraudulent accounts to get them removed from your credit reports. Keep in mind that the bureaus may ask for a police report, which is why we suggest doing that first so you have it on hand. Additionally, be sure to reach out to the financial institution or creditor to let them know the account is fraudulent, as you don’t want to be on the hook for a debt that you didn’t rack up. Be sure to also explain that you already reported the account(s) to the credit bureaus. They may not be able to do much for you, as they still want the debt paid, but it doesn’t hurt to alert them.

Contact the IRS

If you discover that someone has used your social security number to file a tax return, you’ll want to contact the IRS directly to get the situation patched up. The FTC has a number of helpful tips to help you get the tax identity theft squared away, as dealing with the IRS isn’t always a pleasant experience, especially during the busy tax season. Unfortunately, our editor found herself in this situation before. Thankfully, she detailed the steps you need to take to alleviate the fraud.

Contact the Social Security Administration

The FTC also suggests reporting the issue to the Social Security Administration. For more information about contact information, you’ll want to visit the Social Security Administration’s website.

Freeze your credit reports

Even if your social security number wasn’t used to open credit accounts, you’ll want to consider freezing your credit, as it will guarantee no new accounts will be opened in your name. Alternatively you can lock your credit or a place fraud alert, although these two options have some downsides. The credit lock isn’t protected by U.S. law (credit freezes are), which means there’s little recourse if the bureau doesn’t actually lock your credit. On the flip side, fraud alerts require issuers to take additional steps when opening new accounts, but there’s no guarantee that all issuers will do that. As such, we recommend sticking with a credit freeze.

Should you get a new social security number?

After dealing with fraud, you may be wondering if you can get a new social security number. While that seems like a logical step, a new social security number might not be able to solve all your problems, as a new number may not be able to provide that clean slate and fresh start that you’re looking for. That’s because government agencies, credit reporting agencies and other entities may continue to keep records associated with your compromised social security number. Additionally, the chance that the Social Security Administration will even allow you to get a new social security number is small. As such, your best defense is to monitor your bank accounts, credit accounts and keep an eye out for any suspicious mail.

Now that you know more about what you should do if your social security number is stolen, learn more about how you can protect your privacy in this age of increasing data breaches and identity theft. To get started, follow our privacy blog.